To get to Machu Picchu we decided to do the three-day Salkantay Trek. It can be four days with a side trip to some springs but we were short on time and decided to go this route. Speaking to people who did the four-day later on, I don’t feel like we missed out on too much (though we were sad to leave our group).
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu but the two main treks are the Inca Trail and the Salkantay. While the Inca Trail is made up mostly of stairs and passes through several ruins along the way, Salkantay is considered more scenic, passing through some of the larger Andean mountains, and not a stair in sight. Since the trip was for my dad (an absolute mountain man), we went with the mountain route. Despite being at high altitude, we felt it would also be easier on our bodies overall, sparing our knees the pain of thousands (probably an exaggeration, I have no idea how many there are) of stairs.
The trail head is quite the drive from Cusco. Our group consisted of nine travellers (including myself and parents), our guide, a cook, assistant cook, and a horse wrangler. All except the wrangler travelled in a mini bus/large van through the often narrow, and blind spot riddled, curvy roads that rose very high in elevation. Turns out I’m not a great passenger and got fairly motion sick, along with a couple other in the group. Luckily I’d brought peppermint essential oil and smelling that helped. Peppermint oil should be part of any travel kit, along with tea tree and lavender, which I used in place of mosquito repellent. While I still got bit, it wasn’t bad, and so did everyone else. (If you’re a mosquito favourite it may not be the best choice for you, but it did the trick for me)
We finally make out way to the trail head and start out. Our cooks and guides only spoke Quechua (traditional language of the Andeans) so we didn’t speak much with them. However, our guide did his best to teach us words along the way. Sullpaiqui (thank you) was the only word that stuck for me though.
Day 1: was a gentle, gradual incline that followed an old Incan aqueduct still in use today. It was an easy start to the trek, around ten kilometers. Our base camp for the night was at the base of Soray Mountain (a 19,437 foot mammoth). It was pretty chilly when we arrived but ventured out for the afternoon side trip just the same. It was only an hour or so to reach the lovely (dare I say ‘majestic’) glacier and blue-green lake.
All the tour groups seem to follow the same basic itinerary so we shared camp with several other groups each night. We were served a warm meal, tasty soup, and all the hot tea you could handle. Coca tea non stop, all day, every day throughout the trek. Especially the first two while we were dealing with the cold and altitude.
Because we were so high up, it gets quite chilly at night, so all the tents from all the groups were put under the same shelter to keep the warmth in. It also kept the snoring together, in one place. I’m not the best when it comes to this. In fact, nothing makes me rage faster than having to listen to snoring. I just cannot get past it. So around 4 am I took myself and my sleeping bag outside and slept under the stars. Our guide had called the camp the ‘million star hotel’. I have to say he was right. The night was so perfect and so clear. I’ve never seen anything like that. I grew up in Northern Canada, where we are blessed by northern lights and regular visits from the Milky Way, but this was something else. Just before sunrise, the horses start rustling as they get let out. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous then and snuck back to my tent just in time for the cooks to bring us our wake-up-tea in bed.
Day 2: we were scheduled to climb Salkantay Pass first thing. The entire morning was spent trudging our way to her, ever-increasing in altitude. The hike itself wasn’t particularly hard. Most of it is fairly gradual. About half way to the pass, it begins to incline some and more again right before, but it’s quite manageable. Where the challenge lays is in the altitude. Each step takes you higher, and as you near the 15,000 foot mark of the pass, air is sparse and you feel your lungs burning. That being said, there are ways to deal with this to make it easier on yourself.
As I mentioned in other posts, altitude pills do wonders but they need to be taken ahead of time. There’s also the coca tea and the leaves to chew. I was particularly nervous for while I grew up in the Canadian Rockies, I’ve lived at sea level the last two years and the only exercise/training I do is yoga. That being said, it was quite manageable. It’s a testament to yoga how well I felt. If you have a well-balanced, regular practice (that includes breath work), you’re most of the way there. While I recommend you be fit before coming to Peru in general, you don’t have to be a marathon athlete, or even a mountain person to be comfortable on this hike. You do need to be fit.
We made it to the pass around noon and our guide led us though little ceremony. He offered us some stories of the culture in that area, then each of us chose a rock and made a communal pile, as all the groups before.
Almost immediately after going over the pass, the landscape changes and it starts to warm up as we shift into the jungle. All that work we’d spent going uphill in the morning, was now doubled, as we walked down over the next five hours. Night two was much warmer than the previous and we were all in better spirits as our bodies were able to produce white blood cells again.
When I walked up to camp I noticed that some of the people were butchering a pig. Children and dogs crowded around excitedly. I didn’t see the slaughtering, but two men in my group did. They said the family walked the little pig up on a rope, it trotted along, seeming happy to be out with everyone. The dogs and it played and they thought, oh look how nice that is, the little pig is out on a walk. Then, the knife came out, brief squealing, and suddenly the dogs forgot their earlier friendship. Life is funny.
This camp had beer. And chips.